Field Trip to Maryland Aquatic Nurseries

by Alysoun Laughlin

Several PVAS members participated in a recent field trip sponsored by the Greater Washington Aquatic Plants Association to Maryland Aquatic Nurseries (MAN). MAN is one of the area’s top suppliers of pond plants and equipment to area landscapers, botanical gardens, and retail shops. However, every Saturday, hobbyists are free to visit, browse their facility and purchase anything in their stock of bird baths, container gardens, pumps, plants, goldfish and accessories for pond or aquarium.

MAN is owned and operated by Dick Shuck, who left an engineering job fifteen years ago to start the nursery. MAN is located in Jarrettsville, Maryland, in Harford County about 20 miles north of Baltimore. Shuck’s home is on the property (a sign by the road is the only indication that his private driveway is also the entrance to the nursery), so visitors are treated to a view of his own magnificent backyard pond. Part of this view is pictured on www.marylandaquatic.com. This is where our tour began.

His deck is covered with a shade trellis with bees lazily circling in the wisteria. Beyond the deck, the Shuck family has a beautifully landscaped yard with a variety of shrubs, trees and border gardens. However, our attention was focused on the 10,000 gallon pond with its koi, surrounding marginal plants, and lily pots settled in the shallows, waiting to be spread throughout the pond later in the season. Shuck designed his pond with shallow areas at either end and a deep pool in the middle, which allows him to remove most of the debris from the pond without disturbing the fish. Much of his filtration is accomplished by a large stand of water celery in a reservoir upstream from the pond; additional marginal plants grow in bog areas that line the stream leading from his pump back to the main section of the pond.

We moved next into Shuck’s fish room - after making the acquaintance of the Shuck family’s veiled chameleon and the family dog. From a quick look, the corner of Shuck’s garage could easily have been mistaken for the fish room of any hobbyist. His half dozen tanks of varying shapes and sizes contain an assortment of platys and other livebearing fish. However, his planted tanks are lit by a combination of sunlight (several members were impressed by a small cube-shaped tank full of vallisneria and Endler’s livebearers, lit only by sunlight from a window) and an incandescent fixture that Shuck has designed specifically for planted aquaria. This unique fixture is made of black acrylic and is v-shaped; it does not cover the entire tank, so several would be required to light a large rectangular tank. It can be slid across the tank to allow easy access for replanting - a major benefit compared to the standard full-tank canopy, which must be switched off and removed to allow for aquascaping. Its open design disperses the heat generated by an incandescent bulb.

Shuck uses a substrate consisting of soil and Turface, a landscaping material that has a high cation exchange capacity, which means that it traps nutrients in a form that is accessible to plant roots. Turface is often used in baseball parks; it is beige in color, but otherwise similar in appearance to Seachem’s Flourite. Shuck does not use peat and does not consider it a wise idea to use a material that is so high in organic content; he prefers a soil made of wood fiber and uses a brand that also contains a substantial quantity of peanut shell. Shuck does not use CO2 or liquid fertilizers, although he has experimented with each. Although he acknowledges that a show tank can benefit from them, his tanks demonstrate that neither CO2 nor liquid fertilizers are required for an attractive planted tank.

Shuck is also a big fan of Myriophyllum, a fine-leaved stem plant. He believes that the fast-growing stem plant, which strips nutrients from the water and thus can help to combat algae, also exudes alleopathic chemicals to inhibit algal growth. For further information on this attribute and other information on maintaining a planted tank, he strongly recommends Diana Walstad’s recent book, Ecology of the Planted Aquarium.

Several members of the group marveled at Shuck’s molded plastic aquarium decorations, which look much more like the ’real thing’ than any plastic decoration we had ever seen. Shuck designs artificial rocks, tree trunks and garden accessories that camouflage filters and tubing as well as providing a decorative accent. Unfortunately, these products aren’t selling well. Apparently, most aquarists prefer neon pink underwater castles and bubbling divers.

Next came the part of the tour that had prompted us each to bring our wallet. Shuck led us on a tour of the nursery, providing tips on how to keep specific plants, searching through his warehouse for a container pond of the appropriate size, and wading into the muck to retrieve a particularly desirable Canna lily. He demonstrated the appropriate method for potting a container plant and provided us with several pounds of gravel and soil.

We saw and learned about how to grow a variety of different lilies and marginal plants and even got a back-room tour of several of his latest products, such as a metal fountain in the shape of a lily; a water spout that looks like a tiny alligator, and another product that isn’t selling well - a desktop container garden in the shape of a golf course. It seems that most golfers aren’t too big on water gardening. (Editors’ Note: We’ll have to check with our resident golfer, Barbara McClorey, on that.)

We each left from this visit having spent between $40 and $100 - not too much, considering that we loaded a station wagon to capacity. That’s less than the cost of my usual trip to the Aquarium Center, and the drive is not much farther.

If you have never set up a pond or container garden, you might find that it provides an interesting new perspective on aquaria. There are a variety of books available on water gardening and pond fishkeeping to help you get started. You can set up an outdoor container garden for roughly the same cost as setting up an equivalent-sized aquarium. Such a container garden is great for keeping a lily, a few marginal plants, and some hardy fish on an outdoor balcony or patio.

This article first appeared in PVAS’s Delta Tale, Vol 32, # 2